Focus On Your Mental Health During Covid-19

Joanna Kleovoulou, Clinical Psychologist and founder of PsychMatters Centre

According to Joanna Kleovoulou, Clinical Psychologist and founder of PsychMatters Centre in Bedfordview, it’s well known that coronavirus poses a serious threat to our physical health. However, there is also a real risk of a threat to our mental health. 

In the face of an ongoing, stressful situation, what we may see occur is a mixed bag of emotional responses, cognitive alternations and the rise of behaviours that may not help us to cope. Traumatic and stressful life event such the spread of a serious illness can overwhelm our coping mechanisms, leaving adults and children feeling out of control and helpless. And, continual exposure to the trauma can leave us feeling depleted, exhausted and acting out in ways that are self-destructive.

For people who have pre-existing mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD, social anxiety or panic, the Covid-19 pandemic may have triggered and intensified the symptoms.

Advice on being resilient during this time:

  • Recognise what is in your control, and let go of what is out of your control.
  • Uphold a daily routine as it creates some mental sense of regularity, momentum and structure, which relieves stress, and gives us a sense of purpose.
  • Use your extra time to discover new parts of yourself – this can include sewing, knitting, gardening or learning too be more tech-savvy.
  • For those, especially parents, who have had to take on multiple roles, learn to ask for support. Get your family working together for a common goal and to alleviate your responsibilities. Lower your expectations about your children’s performance and do the best you can – we are in a crisis after all.
  • Do not repress feelings and find a trusted family or friend to whom you can reach out.
  • Remember to do something self-loving to fill up your own cup.
  • Avoid watching too much Covid-19 media coverage as this perpetuates anxiety and creates a sense of dread.
  • Keep connected with your loved ones, extended family and friends that care.
  • If you are a chronic patient, remember to take your medication and to stay in touch with your specialist.

Ways to keep feel more connected to others

This is vital for mental well-being, especially as the Covid-19 preventative measure is no physical contact. We need to find creative ways to stay connected, such as creating a friend or family chat group via video/Skype; or joining your local support group online (PsychMatters offers online support for people struggling with anxiety, stress and depression pro bono). The South African Depression and Anxiety Group offers telephonic support nationally (0800 567 567), and there are other resources such as your place of worship. You are never alone. You can also reach out to a psychologist in your area or connect on an online platform.

How to stay positive and avoid slipping into depression

  • Keeping our minds and bodies active can relieve depression, lift demotivation, give us energy and make us feel hopeful.
  • Sitting in the sun gives a natural mood booster by activating Vitamin D.
  • Focus your attention on things you are grateful for.
  • Notice what words you use and reframe to the positive. For example, ‘We are not stuck at home, we are safe at home’.
  • Set tiny daily goals to get you going and keep motivation levels up.
  • Get out of bed at a set time, make your bed and dress up.
  • Make a list of all the things you look forward to once lockdown is over, and plan to execute them.
  • Be kind to yourself – we are in a global crisis after all.

Dealing with the stress of reduced income and/or job loss

Try not to get overwhelmed by fear. Rather focus on areas you can control, such as identify the things you can do without and that are not essential to your basic needs. Get practical and ask for help in your network if needed. See this as a chance to relook at and revisit your CV, identify your skills and competencies through the years, and reach out to employment agencies and your network to put the word out that you are seeking employment.

Doing something constructive will give you some sense of hope. Request a payment plan with your financial institutions, and do the same with people that owe you money. Government relief is a short-term solution, so in the interim, be proactive to not live beyond your basic means.

Tips on coping with uncertainty and frustration

Change and uncertainty are difficult for most of us to deal with, and can affect our mental health and wellbeing, potentially leading to increased stress, depression and anxiety. Uncertainty is one of the most anxiety-provoking experiences, as it feels like a threat to our well-being and survival, along with feelings of helplessness. Both of these feelings are being evoked in most of us during this pandemic, which poses a real threat to our health, and threat of other potential losses.

If we can learn to surrender to the fact that although we would like to feel in control, we do not really have control of what happens next, uncertainty does not feel so daunting.

Our daily routines often buffer global concerns and help us cope, and create a sense of ‘normal’, but the pandemic has restricted us from accessing those daily activities, which has dislodged us and exposed us psychologically in many ways. Find a new routine that works for you during lockdown, and find constructive ways to release frustrations such as exercise – walking, yoga, breathing and mindfulness, journaling, kicking a ball against a wall, etc.

Transitioning through the lockdown levels and going to work

Just when we were getting used to this ‘new normal’ after two months of lockdown, we are moving to the next level, which will require some time adjusting to. For many, the comfort of our homes and the gifts that staying at home has opened up for us, may make them reticent to get back to our old lives.

For others, the lockdown has had the opposite effect and as left them feeling helpless and restricted. Holding the fear of contamination or spread, versus getting on with life can also weigh heavy on our minds and bodies. Concerns about adjusting to our previous lives with this new Covid-19 experience, learning what the world of work will look like, job security and expectations, whilst worrying about children going back to school and the conditions for the learning environment, is understandable. Find out how your work can support you.

Further advice:

– Write your concerns down regarding each aspect of your life. If you are concerned about the school environment, reach out to the school management to request further information about your child’s safety and the measures they have incorporated, before deciding to send your child back to school. If you are concerned about your working environment, request further information and seek alternatives to going back to work such as flexi-time, or remote working, with gradual transitioning.

– Write a list of all the things you missed out on during lockdown and looked forward to doing post-lockdown, and plan to re-introduce them into your life.

It is a good opportunity to reflect on whether you can continue some of the things you’ve been doing differently, and integrate them into your old routine.

Many deal with change differently, so for some people a more gradual re-integration would be more appropriate. Circumstances at home during lockdown are different for many, and leaving the home to re-introduce back into society means different things for each person.  Be mindful that we are still living within a pandemic and we still need to practise cleanliness and physical distancing, while being careful not to let the fear consume us, and while gently getting back to other aspects of our lives.

In conclusion, the impact of Covid-19 will eventually lessen, but untreated psychological damage can have lifelong effects, so it’s important that we as adults, parents and teachers know when to intervene and seek additional support. Reach out for help. The pandemic has not limited your digital access to doctors, psychologists, social workers, to your loved ones or to your church and community. Children and parents must actively deal with difficult emotions now to move past the stress of our current situation and find the strength to cope with the challenges ahead. I want to remind us all that we grow and get stronger through challenges.

PSYCH MATTERS +27 11 450 3576